San Francisco’s Hidden Bars and Speakeasies


There was a time in San Francisco when, if you ordered the right cigar at JJ Russell’s Cigar Shop, a trap door would open to a secret basement bar. Or, you could eat a meal at the Palace Hotel, order “flowers” for your date, and a bottle of whisky would be discretely delivered to your table. If that wasn’t enough – and if you were a man – you could take a secret tunnel from the hotel to the speakeasy/Gentleman’s Club across the street.

While most of America made do with homemade moonshine and bathtub gin during prohibition, the port city of San Francisco enjoyed alcohol smuggled in from all over the world. "In San Francisco, Prohibition was only a rumor," writes Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call, a book about the rise and fall of Prohibition.

While Prohibition was lifted in 1933, the city of San Francisco is still littered with secret basement speakeasies, some of which are still in operation. The concept of a secret bar has been so firmly woven into the fabric of the city that new hidden bars continue to pop up today.

Journalist Kate Sweeney tells us more about San Francisco’s speakeasies.

The Bourbon & Branch

According to the Bourbon & Branch website, a bar has operated at this location since 1867. During Prohibition years the bar was moved to the basement, while on street level JJ Russell’s cigar shop operated as a front.

Today, the building is a Russian nesting doll of secret bars. There are five bars here, operating at varying levels of secrecy and exclusivity:

- The Main Bar

To gain access to the Main Bar, make a reservation online. You’ll be provided with a password to whisper covertly when you arrive at the Jones street entrance.

- The Library

Open every night from 6pm to 2am. Access this standing-room only bar by finding the unmarked entrance on O’Farrell and giving the super-secret password, which is definitely not “books” (okay, it’s “books”).

- Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency

To access this bar, set in a fictional detective agency, make a reservation on their website. You’ll be given a password. You may only repeat this password once you arrive at the Jones street entrance. Protect it with your life.

- Russell’s Room

Named after the cigar shop that operated as a front for the speakeasy, this bar can be booked for private events, and is sometimes used as an overflow area for the Library.

- The Ipswitch

The Ipswitch is only available for private events. If you’re going to the Ipswitch, then you already know more about it than we do.

The HogsHead Reserve

This hidden cocktail lounge is found inside The Barrel Room – a wine bar and store on Sansome Street. No password needed here, just walk down the stairs at the back of the store. There, you’ll find a cash-only bar area, a cozy living room with a fireplace, and a cocktail lounge set in a former bank vault.

House of Shields

Remember how we mentioned the speakeasy that could be accessed through a tunnel from the Palace Hotel? Well, this is the one. Open continuously since 1908, this bar is, according to their website, the “last remaining drinking establishment for adults in San Francisco.” In keeping with tradition, they don’t have a clock or television on the premises. In breaking with tradition, they started allowing women in 1976.


There are a number of secret bars in San Francisco that are exclusive, expensive, members-only establishments. The Gotham Club, found behind the scoreboard of AT&T Park, is one $2500 example. Marianne’s used to be a members-only bar as well, which required a secret code, but in 2016 it opened its doors to the public. This bar is located inside The Cavalier restaurant on Jessie Street. You can make a reservation on their website, and when you arrive the host at The Cavalier will direct you to Marianne’s.

While you’re in San Francisco, head to any of these hidden bars to get a glimpse into San Francisco’s past, and a taste of the city’s nightlife.  

And if you are looking for an iconic place to stay after your speakeasy experience, or just want to have a not so hidden cocktail, visit The Alise San Francisco .

Follow us on social media: